April 07, 2020
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What municipal leaders can do to help their communities during the coronavirus outbreak

Troy Bennett | BDN
Troy Bennett | BDN
Portland Mayor Kate Snyder listens as City Manager Jon Jennings announces a city employee who works at the India Street clinic has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Confronting a global pandemic is a situation no mayor wants to face. I can only imagine the fear and uncertainty mayors and other municipal leaders in Maine must be feeling in this moment. I myself am deeply concerned about the economic devastation this crisis may have on poor and working families, and those feelings are only amplified by the limits on my power to help.

But city leaders are not powerless. Our most vulnerable constituents, our neighbors and friends, are on the verge of tremendous struggle. And the strength, vision, and actions of mayors and other municipal leaders will be the difference in the lives of many.

That is why I am writing to encourage city officials to lead us boldly in the coming days.

I write in support of a few actions that should be taken, particularly in Portland, that I hope city leaders will consider. Please know that I will do whatever I can to help implement them.

Call for a city-wide rent freeze, and enact an emergency ban on all no-fault evictions and any evictions resulting from coronavirus-related layoffs.

Since this public health emergency began, I am sure you have heard the same stories I am hearing about tenants being kicked out of their homes without cause or receiving rent increases.

And all of us are hearing from countless workers who are being laid off and furloughed without pay. These layoffs will turn into homelessness if city officials do not act now.

Stabilizing people in their homes could mean the difference between life and death.

Double the city’s rent/tax relief payments and expand the program to include all low-income residents.

Currently Portland’s rent and tax relief program only provides support to low-income households with someone who is 62 or older, and the average rebate is around $500. Expanding the eligibility of the program to all ages, and doubling the cash sent to these residents, will help cover food, heat, rent, and mortgage for close to 3,000 households.

Re-open the India Street Health Clinic immediately and increase its budget substantially.

Shuttering our clinic for 500 of our most vulnerable residents, in the middle of a health crisis, was very short-sighted. I know that this was not the mayor’s decision, but calling for it to reopen can be. There are healthcare facilities in Maine, including Mercy Hospital, that have had similar situations, and they’ve remained open to serve their patients, and others, at this critical time.

India Street houses the only needle exchange in Portland, and that means upwards of 15,000 dirty needles a month will not be taken off the street. Likewise, the clinic houses a free STD testing center. Not providing access to such services for low-income and disenfranchised communities, will only lead to the spread of more communicable diseases, at a time when our medical system is in danger of becoming overwhelmed.

Please call for the clinic to be immediately re-opened and advise the city manager that its funding should be substantially increased in the city budget.

Call on the city council to abandon plans for a single mega-shelter and implement a scattered site model.

Many of us have opposed the single mega-shelter proposal because it is not the best way to serve our homeless. Hopefully in light of this crisis, more councilors will understand its biggest liability of all. Housing 200 or more people in a single room is a recipe for the spread of disease.

Smaller shelters scattered around the city, allows for better services to our clients, but also provides flexibility for slowing the spread of diseases like COVID-19.

Finally, provide two-weeks paid sick time for all Portland employees.

While we missed a crucial opportunity last year to pass paid sick leave for all Portland workers, the newly created state pre-emption does not block the city and school department from providing our own workers whatever benefits we deem necessary. And some, sadly, still do not have paid sick leave.

These initiatives are clearly only a piece of what is needed and I hope city leaders will consider embracing them. Thank you again to Maine municipal leaders for their willingness to lead us during this uncertain time.

Ethan Strimling served four years as Portland’s mayor and represented the city in the Maine Senate for six years.

 


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